Rachel Cairnes, policy and public affairs adviser at the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO), responded to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) on its Business Plan for 2020/21.
The response was broadly supportive of the SRA's proposed work and priorities for 2020-21, although argued that a greater focus should be placed on supporting vulnerable consumers, and that higher levels of contextual detail should be provided in future Business Plan consultation documents.
"[T]here is a concerning lack of research from regulators and professional bodies to address the issues of how consumers perceive the quality and cost of legal services, as well as helping to identify consumer needs and concerns. We welcome the SRA's prioritisation of more research to inform policy development and implementation.
"Consumers often require legal services at a point of some personal distress, such as to resolve a landlord or housing dispute, or to alleviate future distress, such as the writing of a will or probate. Moreover, many consumers are confused or intimidated by the legal services market. Research is continually required, in pace with the changing nature of the sector, in order to determine what measures should be enforced to help ease the consumer experience, improve confidence, and ensure they are receiving the highest-quality service. ACSO recommends that the SRA work with a broad range of industry stakeholders in order to help consumers understand what to expect from legal services, what protections are in place, and to allow flexibility for the market to grow and innovate. Again, we would be very pleased to contribute further advice or evidence as required.
"In addition, we urge the SRA to share its findings and any conclusions it draws from horizon scanning and intelligence gathering. Shared lessons will benefit firms and the wider sector by identifying best practice, particularly in regard to aiding the consumer experience, and enabling the identification of common or systematic market issues. It is imperative that the SRA works to build trust and public confidence in legal services throughout England and Wales; the regular sharing of data and insights in likely to lead to initiatives that help improve consumer outcomes, including for vulnerable consumers, whilst simultaneously stimulating competition between service providers and raising industry standards.
"[The] CMA recently announced that it plans to assess the extent to which the recommendations made in its 2016 report of the legal services sector have been taken forward, and the impact of those changes on competition. The 2016 report repeatedly highlighted how consumers' ability to make informed decisions on which legal service provider to choose, and secure best value for money, was hindered by insufficient information on price, quality and service. Four years on, these issues remain pertinent. For example, according to the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) Tracker Survey, 67 per cent of consumers do not shop around for legal service providers and 47 per cent of consumers found it difficult to find information about the cost of a legal service as no upfront information is provided. The CMA's reassessment of the legal services sector is timely, and we urge the SRA to continue to advance the important initiatives outlines in the 2016 study".
The full submission will be published by the SRA in due course.